Armchair Design, essay, video games

Armchair Design: Prince of Persia’s Built Enviroment

[This is the first post in a set talking about the encoding, reading and evaluation of the environmental design of Prince of Persia (2008). This post is also part of the Armchair Design series, highlighting design choices and consequences in games.]

One of my favorite things about Prince of Persia is how in coming back to it, as I have in recent days, I still remember how to communicate with the game despite having been away from it for over a year. Most of the time, the game does a great job showing the player the exact action necessary in order to propel the Prince and Elika across the landscape and among the various platforms that litter that regions. The game, through the use of a standard set of objects for the Prince to interact with, makes great use of creating mnemonics.

In his book The Meaning of the Built Environment, Amos Rapoport puts forth the idea that the best built (e.g. designed) environments are those that “elicit appropriate emotions, interpretations, behaviors and transactions by setting up the appropriate situations and contexts” (80). These are said to have a mnemonic function  and take “the remembering from the person and places the reminding in the environment” (81). In other words, the player, in the case of Prince of Persia, does not have to remember the full set of all possible interactions, only the matching pair that relates the visual cue presented to the player at any one time. This limits the domain of reactions from the player, “prevent[s] purely idiosyncratic interpretations, responses, and behaviors that would make social communication and interaction impossible — or at least very difficult.” However, this achievement is limited in respect to the characters in the game. While the world may posses mnemonic functionality for the player, it is obscured when trying to place it within a cultural context.

In archaeology, continues Amos Rapoport, artifacts are “a set of choices among alternatives” so that they “encode meanings, priories, schemata, and the like” (83) These artifacts, of which a built environmental is one, are then “congealed information” from cultural processes reinforced over time. The more times something is used, like a path for instance, the more likely it is to become the standard method of travel. This goes for objects and environments over time. They are derived from a “template” and are deep encoded through use after use.

In Prince of Persia, however, if we are to understand the environments in this archaeology sense, then the paths, the walls and various other places that have marks showing usage that predate the appearance of The Prince and Elika must be from usage that occurred over time, encoding that reinforced certain paths over others. This, of course, leads to the absurdity of people trying to work in the various regions by wall-running and climbing vines to get around, something I am not sure was the point of the supposed encoding.

In trying to read the environment, it is necessary to place it within a “contextual analysis”. That is, to understand the cultural significance that gave rise to both its use and reinforcement. Understanding then that new symbols exist within a system of environmental communication help to limit the possible domain of interactions and, with continual usage after first introduction, allow it to be amended to the preexisting list of transaction pairs. The more you see something unfamiliar in an understood chain of symbols, the faster translation of the symbols can happen. This is how language is taught, by using the words and grammar already known and then adding more and more words over time.  Rapoport puts it as “the objects, and the behaviors if known, help define the nature of the setting” and in turn “the setting, once and if known, can help define the nature of the objects found in it.” This, of course, is how Prince of Persia (and basically any game) works.

The game first introduces how wall-running, climbing (horizontal) and climbing (vertical) work before adding more and more complications. Yet, by understanding the nature and previous interactions with each noun like walls, vines and rings, the player can chain verb transactions to later unfamiliar objects like switches because it is made up of known symbols and is placed in the same context as rings and vertical climbing. The player learns to “read” the game’s language and build the necessary communication in order to process each transaction as it occurs, even if it is new and unfamiliar at first. Of course, the more these symbols are seen, understood and, above all things, reinforced the stronger the connections between expected pairs can be.

Evaluation of symbols, in the case of built environments among other information systems, is best when delivered through different methods and used consistently across the entire realm. Says Rapoport, “by increasing redundancy, the likelihood of messages and meanings getting through is greatly increased. The more different systems communicate similar messages, the more likely they are to be noticed and understood” (84). The success of symbols then is based not only in different methods but also “the success of chain operations of various types is precisely that they are used consistently and hence become highly predictable; they communicate effectively.” Prince of Persia takes a small set of nouns and uses them over and over again in various visual ways.

There really is only a very small set of verbs that a player must understand in trying to transverse the landscapes. Basically, they boil down to jumping, running or climbing and branch from there. Yet, the visual cues for their use are diverse in that the marks that cue the verb of wall-running, for example, can appear on various structures that while different, contain the necessary context for the transaction expected. All wall-running visual cues contains the marks that signal this action (consistently) while also appearing on walls that are slanted in such a way to show that this is the action expected (redundancy). This works for rings and vines as well among the other nouns. They all appear in a context that while peripherally different present a context where the player can evaluate the necessary chain of operations into movement.